After a more than successful trial run in 2012, Riot Fest returned to Humboldt Park on the West Side of Chicago for the second incarnation of Riot Fest & Carnival, on september 13 through the 15th.. The festival setup was nearly identical to last year (with the only real change being the addition of another stage). I attended both days last year with absolutely no complaints, plenty of outhouses, relatively affordable food and good sound quality, what else can you ask for? This year I went in thinking "it was too perfect last year, something has to go wrong this time around"…and something did go wrong. They did not give out flyers with the set times on them this year. Instead they had several big banners with the schedules posted around the festival grounds. Yes, that is my only complaint. So, needless to say Riot Fest 2013 topped its predecessor.
I arrived about an hour after gates opened and went straight for the Rock Stage where The Flatliners, one of the bright spots of the contemporary punk rock scene was kicking off the fest. Obviously the majority of the crowd had no clue who they were but there was clearly a large group of Flatliner faithful up close violently finger pointing throughout the whole performance. As their set was winding down I walked over to the Rise Stage to see one of my personal favorite bands, the pride of Chicago's Southside: Flatfoot 56, a more "hardcore" Dropkick Murphys to put it simply. I worked my way to the front and was pleasantly surprised to see the same twenty or thirty people who attend all of their local shows. It felt like a family reunion in the middle of a fest with at least 30,000 people walking around. Bagpiper Eric McMahon broke the tops of his pipes, there were plenty of massive circle pits, intense slam dancing and a wall of death. It was a typical Flatfoot 56 show to say the least. Flatfoot was just the first of many Chicago bands to show off to the out-of-towners that nobody does punk rock better than the Windy City. A real testament to the laid back and accepting atmosphere that is Riot Fest was seeing the same people sing southern gospel hymns during Flatfoot also sing "American Jesus" during Bad Religion. Which brings me to the people who were at Riot Fest. They were great for a festival. Very few assholes going on people shoulders, no fights (that I saw) and above all I did not see a single yolo or swag related shirt. Lollapalooza looked like a douche convention by comparison.
Following Flatfoot we briefly stopped to see Hatebreed. I have been familiar with Hatebreed for years but have never really considered myself a fan, their live show gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, the crowd's energy level was insane, the pits looked intense and the finger pointing was also quite violent. On the other hand, every Hatebreed song seemed to sound the same both musically and lyrically (c'mon how many songs can you write about being angry…granted I had just smoked a joint before seeing them, perhaps I wasn't in the right mentality for angry music). Despite not being a fan of Hatebreed, I still had a good time just seeing the crowd's intensity and just how passionate their fans are. After Hatebreed I briefly stopped by the Riot Stage to hear some nostalgic middle-school anthems courtesy of Yellowcard. Like every other band that played, the mixing was spot on. The best part about Yellowcard was that they definitely understood that nobody really cared about anything they've released in the past 7 or 8 years. So, they played a set very heavy with material from "Ocean Avenue" which made my inner 7th grader quite happy. Following Yellowcard was the legendary Bad Religion. After missing Bad Religion the last two times they came around I was beyond stoked to finally see them and they did not disappoint. They played a perfect mix of songs from their new (instant classic) album "True North" and old favorites like "Sorrow," "Infected," and "21st Century Digital Boy." Despite being blown away by Bad Religion I was disappointed to miss the set of the grandfathers of pop punk, Screeching Weasel who played at the same time. I have never seen Screeching Weasel despite the fact that they are a Chicago group. The opportunity will hopefully present itself someday because from what I heard their Riot Fest set was a great time.
Following Bad Religion was Gwar, who did what they always do (cover the crowd in alien cum, crucify Jesus, kill the royal baby, talk shit on all the other bands playing….ya know the usual). After Gwar I caught the tail end of Atmosphere's set. One of three rappers at the fest he was a nice change of pace from the distorted guitars and screaming the fest's punk bands had to offer. The only thing more marvelous than Atmosphere's light show was the massive cloud of weed smoke hovering over the crowd. In retrospect I would have liked to get up close and smoke a little myself but I felt obliged to see old school rocker Joan Jett. The highlight of her set was bringing out Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! to play a song they wrote together. Aside from that she played a set filled with songs off her new album and classics such as "Bad Reputation" and "I Love Rock N Roll". Up next: Danzig, not being a huge fan of his solo material the first 45 minutes of his set was rather bland. Then he brought out his old Misfits band mate Doyle and they played through some Misfits classics including my personal favorites "London Dungeon" and "Last Caress." The only thing more spectacular than the music was Doyle's six pack. I can't say I've ever seen someone in their 50s in such good shape, let alone a musician (normally they're either dead or have massive beer bellies by 50). When Danzig finished up I darted over to the Riot Stage to catch the end of Fall Out Boy (one of my guilty pleasure bands). During their encore they brought out the Stanley Cup on stage which added yet another level to the hometown pride Riot Fest provides. But if the Blackhawks suck this year I will blame it on Pete Wentz for touching the cup.
After getting only a few hours of sleep thanks to the ridiculous train/bus ride home to Rogers Park, day two of Riot Fest began with a bang. Kicking it off was Memphis May Fire, the young and energetic staples of the ever growing metalcore scene. Vocals were spot on with their records, which was impressive and the crowd (mostly made up of high school/college kids) was very intense. After taking a pass on seeing either X or The Devil Wears Prada (food sounded better) I stumbled upon a British 2-tone ska band called The Selecter. Before the first song was over I knew i'd found a one of the fest's many hidden gems. After about 30 minutes of happy go-lucky ska I decided it was time to get back to some angst-filled punk rock. Up next was The Lillington's first show since 2005. For those who don't know, they're Kody Templeton's band prior to joining Teenage Bottlerocket. One of the beauties of Riot Fest is their uncanny ability to get the most random and enjoyable reunion shows (Slapstick last year and The Lillingtons this year). Masked Intruder joined The Lillingtons on stage for a short performance. Since Masked Intruder burst onto the punk scene in summer 2012 no one has been able to figure who the people behind their masks are. Some have speculated it was the guys from Teenage Bottlerocket since they are the ones who "discovered" Masked Intruder and the two have toured extensively together. That theory was disproved at day two of Riot Fest.
Following The Lillingtons, the 90's punk rock theme continued with the iconic Southern California skate punk rockers Pennywise. This was their first show in Chicago since original singer Jim Lindberg returned to the band last winter. It was clear from the ovation he received everyone was glad to have him back. Pennywise blasted through a high intensity set filled with many old and new songs. Pennywise is a band that has music designed to be sung along to and needless to say it was amazing hearing a good 5,000 people shouting along to the chorus of "Fuck Authority" or unharmoniously singing the "whooaas" in "Bro-Hymn." As if Pennywise wasn't intense enough
Flag was up next. For those who don't know Flag consists of former members of Black Flag (fronted by the legendary Keith Morris) performing their music. Having seen the "real" Black Flag back in June I cannot say that one rendition is superior. Black Flag was slower and featured much more intense guitar solos (after all Gregg Ginn is a phenomenal guitarist). Flag on the other hand toned down the guitar solos and instead focused on speed and raw energy. In my opinion Black Flag's front man Ron Reyes did a better job than Keith Morris performing Rollins-era Black Flag songs. Between songs Morris did take the time to drop a few "Gregg Ginn" lines in which were depressingly funny.
Blondie took the stage next. Right away it was clear Debbie Harry has not aged as well as Joan Jett. Unfortunately I have never been able to get into new wave as a genre so several songs in I left to see yet another Chicago band, The Lawrence Arms. 15 years after forming the band Brendan Kelly has still managed to keep his distinct raspy voice in perfect form. He also took the time to confirm that for the first time since 2006 they would be entering the studio to record a new album. Following The Lawrence Arms I had to make the toughest decision of Riot Fest.
Rancid, the kings of 90s punk and Public Enemy, the kings of 80s hip-hop were scheduled to play at the same time. Rancid had not played in Chicago since 2007 and because every member of the band has touring commitments with other groups it could be another 5 years before they come back around. On the other hand, Public Enemy is getting up there in age. This could perhaps be my only opportunity to ever see them. In the end, I chose to start at Public Enemy and about half way through I made a mad dash to catch the end of Rancid. I made the right decision, Rancid started 10 minutes late and Public Enemy played a lot of my favorite songs early. Chuck D, Flavor Flav and DJ Lord were in top form, the only thing missing was a guest appearance from Anthrax but I suppose that's too much to ask for. I made it over to Rancid in time to hear them end with "Fall Back Down" "Time Bomb" and "Ruby Soho." Despite their age they were in top form and Tim Armstrong was jumping around on stage like he did was still a 20 year old in Operation Ivy playing Gillman Street all those years ago.
Up next: Violent Femmes or Taking Back Sunday, two bands I do not particularly care for so I took this time to get a good spot for the day's headliner Blink-182. There were no disappointments at Riot Fest 2013, the only thing that came close was Blink's set list. Aside from Carrousel they played nothing pre-"Enema of the State" and there was a fair amount of mediocre soft rock songs off of "Neighborhoods" and their new EPs that the crowd clearly did not care for. The boring slowdowns in their set were more than made up for when they played childhood classics like "Rock Show" "All the Small Things" and above all "Dumpweed." All in all, Blink was a great time and a good one to get off the bucket list. Had I paid to see them headline in some arena I would probably come out disappointed but being at Riot Fest they were a nice chill way to end an amazing day two.
It was another night of only a few hours sleep. As I slowly woke up to my alarm (Social Distortion's Ball and Chain) I heard a noise coming from outside my apartment. This noise was my worst nightmare. It was pouring rain and frigid outside. By the time I reached Humboldt Park the torrential rain had turned into a slight drizzle but the temperature was still in the high 40s. The Wonder Years, a very heart-on-the-sleeve brand of raw pop punk kicked off the final day of festivities. After 40 minutes of violent finger pointing and pogoing, lead singer Soupy Campbell crowd surfed his way from the stage to a small tree back in the crowd. He proceeded to climb up about 15 feet and jump off it and crowd surf his way back to the stage (and all the jaded punk rockers say pop punkers have no balls). Following The Wonder Years was Against Me's first show in Chicago since Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender. The applause she received when coming on stage was quite heartwarming. The mosh pits however were not heartwarming in the least. The rain had taken its toll on the already destroyed grass. Mosh pits turned into slippery and muddy disaster. People were flipping head over heels, making mud angels and doing other crazy shit. As for the music, Laura's voice was as good as ever and the new bassist and drummer added a nice new energetic flare.
Then the rain picked up again and I made refuge under a tree where I spent the next two hours. I didn't exactly have a burning desire to see Bob Mould, Rockets from the Crypt or Best Coast, staying dry was more of a priority. The rain slowed down just in time for one of the most genuine modern punk bands, Off With Their Heads to power through a fantastic 30 minute set. They ended it with the 6 foot 200 some pound singer Ryan Young crowd surfing and landing right on top of me which was painful (but worth it) to say the least.
From a practical standpoint, Riot Fest's only big mistake was the timing of the next two bands. All Time Low and Brand New's sets overlapped and last time I checked they both cater predominantly to high school girls. Since Brand New rarely tours they drew and huge crowd and poor All Time Low was left with hardly anyone. I suppose this was a good thing since there were actually some very nice circle pits( without little girls running out crying) which I never thought I'd see at an All Time Low show. All Time Low's music is upbeat and catchy however their stage antics were laughable. I'm not one criticize bands I don't particularly care for but when All Time Low is up there asking girls to throw their bras on stage or telling the crowd to shout "fuck" as loud as they can I can't help but judge them as a bunch of juvenile fucks.
All Time Low finished at 7:30 and by that point I was running on fumes. My feet were wet, numb and reaching trench foot levels of discomfort. I had 8 hours of sleep combined the previous two nights and standing/moshing the past 2 ˝ days was finally catching up to me. AFI sounded great from a distance but I had no motivation left to try and get close. With my 8am class sounding dreadful the next morning I decided it was time to call it day and head home. I regret not seeing The Replacements but waiting around through Pierce the Veil for an hour just to get to The Replacement's set did not sound appealing.
Riot Fest 2013 was over for me. My ears stopped ringing in a day. Bruises healed within a week. The numbness in my feet was gone in two weeks. But here I am three weeks later still trying to wrap my head around that weekend. I spent the whole summer listening to album after album by bands scheduled to play. It exposed me to some amazing new bands I would otherwise have never listened to. The location of the fest was beautiful, the food was delicious and there was lots of weed. All those factors created amazing memories with some amazing friends. That is the true beauty of music and this festival. Now we begin the speculation for next year's lineup…If I was in charged we'd have The Pogues and Green Day headline and perhaps a Misifts reunion with Graves and Doyle (they both say they're up for it and Jerry Only loves any paycheck he can get). Also give me Cock Sparrer, Stiff Little Fingers, the Bosstones and Sum 41.